Apple unveiled a pair of new iPads in March 2019, unexpectedly resurrecting the previously discontinued iPad Air and reviving the long neglected iPad mini line. These are both fine tablets well worth our recommendation.
But where does this leave the iPad 9.7in, which was previously our pick as the best-value iPad on offer? It's still on sale, and remains the cheapest iPad in the line-up, but looks rather underpowered compared to the new kids on the block.
At some point Apple is going to give the non-Air, non-mini, non-Pro iPad some attention to bring it up to date, and this article is all about discussing and predicting how that update will go. We look at the likely release date of the next iPad, and predict the design changes, new features, specs and price we should expect.
The last iPad 9.7in was released in March 2018, and is therefore overdue for an update. It's already been more than a year, so the next available press event (WWDC starting on 3 June 2019) should be pencilled in for an announcement, right?
Not so fast. All this simply raises another question: did the iPad Air update in March 2019 - exactly when we expected a new iPad 9.7in - 'count' as that update?
The Air is an altogether more upmarket tablet than the 9.7in, which remains available as the lowest-price tablet Apple sells; as we detail in our comparison review, it has a bigger (and laminated) screen, a much faster processor and more RAM, a much better front camera and support for the Pro-style Smart Keyboard. In consequence of these numerous advantages the Air costs £160/$170 more than the 9.7in (2018) at the entry level, albeit for twice as much storage.
But it still occupies a similar position in the range, offering a mid-size screen and plenty of power at an affordable price, and it's entirely possible that Apple considers its work done in this area for the time being. If that's true, we shouldn't expect the next mid-size, mid-price iPad until spring of 2020.
Again, the design changes we can expect depend largely on whether we're talking about an additional update to the budget iPad before the end of 2019, or a full-on revamp in spring 2020.
If the new iPad appears soon, expect minor changes to the design. Apple may shrink down the bezels around the screen a little, as it did on the iPad Air (2019), but it certainly won't remove the Home button, as it did on the most recent iPad Pros, and go for an almost all-screen design. This would at a stroke make the Pro models less special and the iPad Air virtually obsolete.
If we have to wait until spring 2020, however, then more radical changes may be possible. By then the next iPad Pros are likely to have launched, bringing new flagship features and making it more feasible that their all-screen design can safely be spread to the rest of the range.
The rule here is that a new budget iPad must not show up any of the more expensive models in the range - so don't expect mouse support, an OLED screen or a twin-lens camera.
We'd certainly hope for a laminated screen, as on the iPad Air (but not on the iPad 9.7in) because this substantially improves the feel when pressing and tapping. Other features from the Air that we'd expect to roll out in the standard iPad: True Tone; an antireflective coating; and possibly support for the Smart Keyboard.
Beyond this we're starting to get into the realm of Pro features, and quite aside from the cost implications Apple will be wary about diluting those devices' specialness. Compatibility with the second-gen Apple Pencil, for instance, was only added in the last generation and seems likely to remain exclusive for a while yet. (See Which iPads work with which Apple Pencils? for more information on this.)
We could see ProMotion, the Pro screen feature that allows for higher refresh rates while adjusting these on the fly for improved power consumption, but the rear camera flash seems more of a long shot.
It's too early to speak with any confidence about the spec sheet, but we can make a few general predictions.
If it comes out before autumn 2019, the new iPad will have an A12 processor, same as the iPad Air. If it comes out after that, the A13 will have become available and may be included, while keeping a souped-up A13X version of the chip free for the Pro line.
Apple isn't going to leave the front-facing camera at that sad 1.2Mp rating (and 720p video), which now looks particularly poor compared to the 7Mp (and 1080p) offerings on the iPad Air and Pro models. Selfies and FaceTime picture quality are both important on the iPad, and we'd expect at least 5Mp.
Bluetooth will be boosted to version 5, and eSIM will be supported.